Disney Legend Jack Hannah, responsible for directing most of the classic Donald Duck short cartoons as well as co-illustrating the first original American Donald Duck comic book story with his story partner Carl Barks, was the very first animator I ever interviewed.
He lived in Glendale, California less than five minutes from where I lived as a teenager. I first interviewed him in 1977 and then several times after that until his death in 1994. We often talked on the phone as well. In 1988, I specifically interviewed him about his time working for Walter Lantz since I had spent so much time on his Disney career.
As usual, we met in the living room of his house. I was equipped with my little tape recorder and my notebook and pen. Hannah left Disney in 1959 for a variety of reasons, including the fact that Disney was cutting back on the making of cartoon shorts and that Hannah was pushing to do more live-action directing.
Animator Gerry Geronimi, who was a long time friend of Walter Lantz, arranged the meeting between Hannah and Lantz — with Hannah not only coming on board at the studio as a supervising director but also helping to run the production end from the creative side. Bill Garity handled the business end.
While at Lantz, Hannah developed some other cartoon characters including Gabby Gator. Here is a short excerpt from that interview that gives a little look into the working of the Lantz Studio in the early 1960s.
Jim Korkis: How did you get involved directing the live-action introduction for the Woody Woodpecker television show?
Jack Hannah: I had done several shorts for Walter and he knew that at Disney I had joined the Director’s Guild so I could direct some of the intros with Walt Disney and Donald Duck for his weekly television show. In some ways, it was quite similar to the work I did at Disney, but with Walter getting friendly with Woody Woodpecker. We couldn’t go into quite the extensive production we did at Disney because we had a smaller budget. Walter seemed pleased with the ideas I incorporated into the scripts.
Unlike Disney, Walter took direction almost too well. He was pleased with any new ideas I suggested, and wasn’t afraid to try them. As a result, I think he came off looking real good in these introductions. He had a free and easy attitude. He wasn’t self-conscious. In fact, in the middle of one of these introductions, Walter had the line “Around the world with Woody!” because it was a sequence showing Woody in different parts of the world. I suggested having Walter spinning a glove as he said his lines, and he did a real good job at it. We had to stop filming, because he was so pleased, he just blurted out “Jack, you can direct anything!” Of course, whether he meant it or not didn’t mean as much to me as just having him say it. It certainly pumped me up a bit.
JK: What was it like doing Woody Woodpecker cartoons?
JH: Woody was well-designed and simple, so there was no problem in working with him. Gracie (Lantz’s wife and the voice of Woody at the time) knew the character inside and out, backwards and forwards, and she was very easy to direct doing the vocals. This may surprise you, but Woody reminded me a lot of Donald Duck. Very close personalities. I had worked so much with Donald that I felt right at home with Woody. Woody had a short temper too and would goad somebody into trouble.
Woody was already well established, and, like I say, somewhat like Donald Duck, who I had gotten very tired of working with over at Disney’s. It started to seem that one Donald Duck short was just like another, and we were running dry on ideas for this crazy character.
Therefore, it was more fun for me to reach out and work with a new character. Gabby Gator had a new locale out in the swamps, and his personality was different from other characters I had worked on, so I may have enjoyed him a little more than Woody.
JK: Did you create the character of Gabby Gator?
JH: I know you’ve asked me this before, and I just don’t recall creating the character, but I don’t remember anyone else doing it, either. At Lantz, the directors usually had some background in story and had a lot of input into each cartoon. I directed the first cartoon Gabby was in, “Southern Fried Hospitality” (1960). I remember working on his character. He was a good character to work with. I always saw him as a kind of Charlie Chaplin type in the fact that he was always looking for a meal but wasn’t about to earn it.
JK: What other characters did you develop at Lantz?
JH: I did a couple of monkeys (Sam and Simian). I know we made a short with them (“Jungle Medics” 1960). They were similar to Chip’n’Dale in that there was a smart guy who was always getting upset over the dumb guy’s antics. Walter was looking for a character for a television series and I developed the Beary Family. The name was a take-off on actor Wallace Beery, who was very popular.
JK: Did Lantz ever consider doing a feature-length cartoon?
JH: I don’t recall him mentioning he was interesting in doing a feature, at least not while I was there. I think he knew he didn’t have the time, talent or material to get into a full-length animated feature. He was quite satisfied doing just what he was doing. In those days, it was getting just terrible. The theaters weren’t running cartoon shorts in their program. Cartoons were costing more to make than they could charge the theaters in rental. That’s why Disney quit making them completely.
JK: At the time, Paul Smith was also doing directing. What was he like?
JH: He was a nice guy. They loved him there. Whatever the storymen gave him, he put it down just the way it was. He reminded me of Jack King at Disney in that way. They added nothing and took nothing out. He never gave them any surprises. He was always right there on time and in budget. They liked that.
JK: Any final thoughts about Walter Lantz?
JH: If I had to describe Walter Lantz, I would say he was always smiling. I don’t remember a frown on his face. He was always complimentary. He never came in and cut you down, even if you deserved it. He always found a way to soften it. He would have made a good diplomat in that way. It was something inside him. He was a very sweet guy.